How To Grade With A Growth Mindset

TeacherVision Advisory Board Member, Mikaela, explains why grading with a growth mindset is essential to supporting students to see that learning is about the process, not the product. She draws on her own teaching experience, and shares her growth mindset grading best practices.

A teacher supporting a student with feedback using a growth mindset

As a student, did you have that class or subject where you just felt like a C student? I remember I could walk away from my history and English classes confident in my abilities to analyze and discuss, but as soon as I entered the math wing my identity transformed from Mikaela, a thoughtful, creative student to Mikaela, the student who gets Cs in math.

It wasn’t until college, while I was taking an educational psychology course focused on Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset, that I realized it wasn’t my abilities that were keeping me from becoming a successful mathematician, but rather my mindset and the way I viewed grades.

Obviously, changing my mindset about math did not instantly make it easier for me, but it did change my attitude towards receiving a B or C on a test. The grade became more of a check-up rather than a confirmation of whether or not I was good at Math.

How do we transform our own mindsets, our students’ mindsets and their parents’ mindsets about grades so that grades become an empowering tool and measure of progress towards mastery, rather than an identity?

It seems like a daunting task, but it really comes down to the way we talk about grades.

The Power of Yet

Yet has become a key word in the education world thanks to Carol Dweck’s research on growth mindset. I can’t swim is replaced with I can’t swim yet. To simplify her research, there are two types of mindsets: fixed and growth. A fixed mindset would lead someone to believe they are a C student and that won’t change. Someone with a growth mindset, on the other hand, believes that intelligence is malleable. With practice and goal setting anyone can achieve mastery. Carol Dweck proved that a growth mindset empowers students and adults alike to perform better on assessments and other tasks, especially minority groups that often underperform.

The best part of her research is that you do not need to buy a fancy curriculum or specific materials. As teachers, all we need to do is be intentional with our words in order to create a culture of growth mindset.

In terms of grading, we can be intentional with the way we discuss grades before assessments and projects, during them and after.

You can access all of our assessment tips and strategies here

Before Grading

It helps to answer the questions, why am I grading my students and what are grades? Grades should not be a black box for you or your students. It helps to be open and honest with your students, even your little ones, about why we grade, what we grade, and how. The more honest and open you are, the fewer phone calls and emails you get when progress reports and grades come out.

When I introduce grading, I refer to grades as an academic physical, a check-up of sorts. I also let students know that grades help me measure my teaching as well as their progress. We also use the word “mastery” when discussing targets. We are always working towards mastery and that takes practice.

A classic example that students relate to is video games. How many times did you fail on level 7 before you were able to make it through? Grades are feedback that helps you figure out what you’ve mastered and what you still need to work on.

During Grading

Think about how you set up grading and be as transparent as possible. For me, every assessment has the points and targets clearly stated, and every project is paired with a rubric (often one I’ve built with the students based on a criteria list). I’ve been fine-tuning my skills in creating objective grading systems so there is absolutely no room for bias. We walk through these tools as a class so students know exactly what is being measured.

I have also started separating the academic progress of my students from class participation and homework completion. I have students who are extremely organized and participate, but still have room to grow on key academic concepts. I also have students who have mastered concepts but struggle with participating and I’ve found that combining these gives a fuzzy picture of a student’s mastery. So, in separating them I can tell a student and their parents where they are academically and with their accountability.

In the spirit of academic mastery, all of my grades are directly tied to targets and state standards. If your school uses standards-based grading, you’re already doing this. If your school uses the letter or percentage scale, you can still set up your scores to measure targets. You can also use growth mindset language to reflect that grades are flexible and mastery is a process.

Mastery Level Growth Mindset Language

1 - D- or below Beginning with skills and abilities

2 - C+ - D Developing skills and abilities

3 - A - B- Meeting expectations with skills and abilities

4 - A+ Exceeding expectations with skills and abilities

After Grades Are Given

Once assessments and projects have been returned can be a sensitive time. I like to make sure that every student recognizes something they did well. For this I love using stars, a target or criteria that a student rocked and mastered, and steps, an area for growth that is specific and literally their next step to continue towards mastery.

Access a Stars and Steps graphic organizer you can download and print here

As much as possible, I make sure this feedback is written, rather than just checking off boxes.

While I often give students a star and step, I also give my students the time and space to identify their own stars and steps. It enables students to take ownership of their learning so they know exactly why they are in a specific group or receiving a specific assignment. In my classroom, we use target trackers that students complete so they can see their progress from level 1 to mastery.

Provide students with multiple opportunities for mastery.

This, I have found, can be the most challenging. As teachers, we can have upwards of 30 students in one class and we can’t re-write tests or let each student take a test until they achieve a 100. So, my advice here is to provide students with multiple opportunities for mastery within reason. This can be having two set opportunities for students to take a unit test, or providing specific assessments with a standard or standards within the unit.

In my classroom, I try to adjust a practice sheet for a specific target or standard and then students can test and re-test at the end of the week with a single sheet. They can test on one standard up to three times, and then their final mastery level is based on their final test.

Involve Parents 

Sharing growth mindset language with parents is just as important as sharing it with students. Here the key again is to be open and honest. Give your parents the same information you share with your students about how you grade and why you grade what you do. The more transparent you are, the easier it is for everyone.

I like to send home my grading policy with an elevator pitch about growth mindset before we have our first assessment or project. It’s an easy thing to throw into a back to school night presentation too. Even better is having your students explain their grades to their parents. My school uses student-led conferences where my 4th graders actually break down their strengths and weaknesses to their parents and family members.

Though there are a lot of tools and school-wide culture pieces that have led to such success at our school, it is incredible to see a student own their own progress and explain to their parents what they need to do to improve. I’ve noticed that students are much better at advocating for themselves and asking for specific help, rather than “I don’t get this.”

Setting up the culture of a growth mindset around grades can take time.

There are students who will still think that their grades define them or fall apart when they fail. But the more they see that they can improve and grow with practice and reflection, the more they will persevere when things get hard.

Here are some additional resources to support your students in developing a growth mindset: Instead Of This, Try This, Glows and Grows, and Student Goals Checklist.

How do you support your students to develop a growth mindset? Share with us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

Mikaela Prego is an elementary educator from Massachusetts. She spent the last 3 years teaching 4th grade in Colorado, now she is back teaching in Massachusetts. Her favorite subjects to teach are math, science and social studies and she is a huge fan of putting the students in charge of as much of their learning as possible. You can follow my classroom @whoareweintheworld on Instagram.

About the author

Mikaela Prego


About Mikaela

Mikaela Prego is an elementary educator based in Louisville, Kentucky. She has spent most of her career teaching 3-5th grade in Colorado and Massachusetts. Most recently,… Read more

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